What Kids Can Learn from Playing in Virtual Worlds

| June 27, 2011 | 5 Comments
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Juliana Coutinho

There are over 1 billion users of virtual worlds, online communities where users have avatars and participate in various simulated environments. Even more impressive than that number: roughly half of those virtual world users are under age 15.

With a number of news stories lately about kids under 13 on Facebook (violating the social network’s terms of service), you’d think there weren’t any other social networking sites that were geared for kids or where kids wanted to be. But clearly that’s hardly the case, and there are many social networks, gaming sites and virtual worlds aimed at the under 13 set: Club Penguin, Whyville, and Webkinz to name just a few. (Here’s a list of eight social media sites just for kids.)

Allowing children under age 13 to participate in online communities often raises questions about security and safety, and many parents fear predators and cyberbullies. Kid-oriented websites have a number of measures to prevent these dangers for their members, including logging chats and flagging questionable content and suspicious accounts.

“Virtual worlds give children an opportunity to participate in a large social environment, with people from all over the world, often unsupervised by their parents.”

But there may be other problems with these sites too, including the intense commercialization of many of them. Often virtual worlds (for children as for adults) encourage not just game-play but consumption, and kids need to buy virtual goods (sometimes with real money) in order to dress their avatars and decorate their virtual homes. Purchasing in-game items often gives users more status, and that’s a lesson in itself that parents may or may not wish to have imparted to their kids.

Virtual worlds are often dismissed as merely games and most do not claim to be educational websites. But there are plenty of informal learning opportunities for kids in these environments, particularly as these are often their first experiences with online communities. Participating in a virtual world can help kids learn how to communicate and behave online.

They can also be utilized to help bridge online and offline ethics. One virtual world, MiniMonos, for example, has an environmental theme and tries to make sustainability lessons clear to its users. If you don’t keep up with the recycling around your avatar’s treehouse, there are in-world consequences. The virtual world also ties this to the real world as well, rewarding users for various environmental actions they take in their own communities.

Here’s a list of five virtual world sites that can unlock all kinds of adventures, curated by a teacher who’s tested many of these sites in his classes.

It’s this connection to community — again, on- and offline — that may be most one of the greatest benefits of virtual worlds. Despite fears about predators, virtual worlds do offer kids a place to experiment and expand socially. Virtual worlds give children an opportunity to participate in a large social environment, with people from all over the world, often unsupervised by their parents. That may sound scary to parents, but for kids, it can be very liberating.

As always, parents should make sure they know where and what their kids are doing online. The best virtual worlds offer reporting features for parents and keep in contact with them should any problems arise. They also allow parents to enter alongside their children.

Although virtual worlds may be a relatively new phenomenon, the fact that kids under 13 are embracing them suggests that we’re only beginning to see the potential of these online communities.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Donna-Guthrie/683150427 Donna Guthrie

    Here;s a great site for kids .

     MEET ME AT THE CORNER,Virtual Field Trips for Kids (www.meetmeatthecorner.org)
    MEET ME AT THE CORNER, Virtual Field Trips for Kids is a series of free kid-friendly educational video podcasts for children ages 5-13. Each episode comes with a list of recommended books, a list of fun websites and a Learning Corner of questions and extended activities.

  • KT Spence

     Me and my daughter love playing virtual worlds. Currently, we can’t get enough of http://www.ekidnaworld.com because we love the cute Australian animals. I find the virtual world as an opportunity to observe how she interacts to different kids and see if she follows our safety rules when she is online.

  • http://twitter.com/paulalexgray Paul Alex Gray

    I found this article very insightful, thanks for publishing Audrey.

     

    It’s encouraging to see new virtual worlds that introduce
    themes or content that helps stimulate thinking. And as you say, the social
    interactions in virtual worlds can be beneficial learning experiences, just as
    kids benefit from meeting new friends and learning how to manage relationships in real life. In both they build the learning skills that lead to empathy and understanding.

     

    I think virtual worlds can provide very useful environments
    that help children learn in different ways. Tasks or missions that require the
    players to follow steps or solve problems can help with developing analytical
    skills as well as learning patience and perhaps how to tackle a problem in a
    different way. Making new friends can teach certain social skills and managing
    friendships in a game can in many ways echo managing a friendship in the
    playground. Those games that have content specific to a theme, like the
    environmental themed virtual world you referred to can give kids more specific
    or deeper learning around different topics.

     

    Of course all game play and interactions must be delivered
    in an environment that is safe and age-appropriate – and fun! I agree with your point
    that it’s important parents understand what they’re children are doing – not
    just in virtual worlds but in all their online activities.

     

    Again, thanks for a great article

     

    Paul Alex Gray

    Bubble Gum Interactive 

  • Natali

    Time
    Island is a fun virtual worlds for kids , which allows kids to play, learn and
    connect with each other. Many activities are spread around the world: cool
    games for kids, challenges, missions and tasks.
     

  • Chris Byron

    The most important missing element is frustration – bugs, rain, a flat tire, snow, cold. These are the aspects of life that promote resiliency. Any experience which lacks these elements is a poor imitation of life; and thereby, learning.